How Do You Solve a Problem Like Afghanistan?


Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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44 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I think it’s worth hearing Kilcullen out on his full view of current options (I have no current links on those), which I think it is safe to assume are not represented with granularity in a Tom Ricks post (geez, did I have higher regard for that guy before he started blogging…).Report

  2. I may be ill-informed here, but my general understanding of the folks that live in Afghanistan is that they are just going to side with whoever brings them the money. Even if we have to pay every warlord in Afghanistand $500,000 per year and air drop Playstations and George Foreman grills into their villages every Christmas to retain their’s still got to be cheaper than fighting a war there that is no more than a police action. Is it just our egos that refuse to allow us to bribe our way to victory? I’m quite sure that with the proper application of American money we could ensure the death of just about any Taliban or AQ operative dumb enough to seek shelter in Afghanistan.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    I’m more and more leaning towards the bugger out option. The damn place was a dump before we arrived. It was a dump even before we started funding the Islamic Mujhadeen. If anyone can be historically blamed for its shambles I suppose it’d be the Soviets. It’s a massive hemmorhage of blood and treasure. We may be better off just declaring victory and bailing out and leaving it to our bombs and dollars to fight the Taliban remotely through proxies.Report

    • My plan, which I’ve probably shared here before, is to drop the 101st Airborne and every Army Ranger we have into Pakistan to hold a skirmish line at the edge of whatever territory Pakistan holds. Then we send Navy Seals, Delta, Green Berets, whatever into the mountains and we kill anything that moves. We stop when our forces can shake hands in the middle.

      As for Pakistan’s protests, we tell them they can cooperate or we cut off foreign aid, plus we do it anyway and use our air force to obliterate any Pakistani troops that come within 50 miles of our ops. We give them a chance to save face by telling them they can say they offered us the plan.Report

      • Avatar Travis says:

        What makes you think that would work?

        Kill them, they’ll hate us even more.

        When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
        And the women come out to cut up what remains,
        Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
        An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        I’m going to have to agree with Travis here Mike. Setting aside the issues of morality the historical fact is that more unconstrained and brutal empires than ours have pounded down on Afghanistan with not much to show of it. They have a long history of surviving such things. If we are going to throw caution to the winds I say pull out and let the Taliban battle interminably with whatever proxy we leave behind. If we support the proxy with some air power and aid then the Taliban won’t ever be able to rise above the level of local terror and we’ll be out of the situation relatively cheaply.Report

  4. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    Can someone explain to me how 40,000 troops breaks a cycle of political corruption in another country? And in this case, Afghanistan?

    That “someone” would be Gen Stanley McCrystal, wouldn’t it? He’s the COIN/counterterroism expert, right? Armchair generals like you really can’t convince anyone of anything, sorry to say.

    I agree with the “bugger out” option and the sooner the better. I don’t really care what happens to Afghanistan as long as they can’t threaten us, or anyone else, anymore. Unfortunately there is something like a consensus amongst real military experts that McCrystal’s assessment is accurate as is his request for resources. In spite of myself, I feel that I have to accept their judgment. If it were like the surge, back in early 2007, then I’d have a lot of military experts who dissented from the surge strategy to support me if I opposed it (which I didn’t). This seems open-and-shut compared with that.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      I’m half inclined to agree Roque. But our civilian government is well (very well) within it’s rights to kick the tires on General McCrystals jalopy and ask a lot of hard questions. Generals have been known to propose doubling down in hopeless or unteneble situations before, it’s understandable we train them to try to win after all.Report

  5. Avatar steve says:

    Generals do tactics, not strategy. To add to your initial summary, I would add that our using the Northern Alliance may have been our first big mistake. Given the long term hostility between the Pashtun south and the Tajik, etc. north, it just laid the groundwork for future troubles. Unintended consequences…


  6. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I do honestly think Kilcullen honestly pulls his hair out over this stuff before opining, so I don’t think it’s fair to assume he is pulling the straw-man escalate-or-we’re-all-gonna-die-via-withdrawal-from-Afghanistan stunt so many hard-core ‘warriors’ do (not that that’s what Chris was saying). I think he’s really thought it over hard and thinks we have to be all-in or it’s not worth it, and I don’t think given the way the politics is working out he would try to close off the president’s option to find a middle way if didn’t really think it’s all or nothing. That, of course, doesn’t make him right about that assessment, and Chris is right that it remains quite convenient that the number of troops more Kilcullen says it would take to (possibly) be successful just happens to be almost exactly what we can afford to send without refiguring overall global commitments, so… Anyway, that’s what I was trying to say up top here.

    Also, I obviously could just be wrong about his uber-good-faith, too. There’s that.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:


      I think that’s a good summary. I don’t assume bad faith on his part. I think he’s a very genuine guy. I just think he’s tied himself (unnecessarily) to the notion of the central state as the be all/end all and therefore has to assume that you can actually build the thing. That’s what I’m questioning.

      With everyone of his points in the NyTimes op-ed, he says, “We have to do X, Y, Z” (things like reform the electoral process, give power to the provinces, end corruption, etc.). My question is always, “How do WE do that to THEM?” Or is the government there not really the government?

      Or more basically–“How do we actually concretely do X, Y, and Z?” Saying we need to do X, Y, and Z is not the same as saying we actually know how to do X, Y, and Z.

      The whole thing is reciprocal and people like Kilcullen (imo) assume the other side is on the same page as us relative to what is in THEIR best interest. I don’t assume such a thing. I think “our” side assumes it knows what it is in their best interest and this may or may not be what “they” think of their own interests as being.

      I think this puts one in a Chinese finger trap. The more we push on the Afghan government to do what we think it should do, the less local legitimacy it will have I think.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        I totally get that, but that seems like a pretty good brief against even an infinitely-resourced COIN campaign. Kilcullen is among the frankest of the COINdinistas about the fact that there are no guarantees in COIN, that in fact failure is disturbingly likely in the best circumstance. So I think what he’s saying is, if you want whatever glimmer of hope he can offer, based on the situation there and a little back-of-the-envelope political math, we basically have to max out our feasible commitment to the place or else he’s not willing to stand behind his product for this use. But you would hope he’d be a little more forthcoming about if he really thinks 40,000 is sufficient, because if he’s settling below his bottom line at that number, then he needs to be clearer that he can’t recommend the strategy given the parameters of the U.S. debate at this time. (Though perhaps he’s been assured that if Obama can be strongarmed into the 40 now, then that will easily be leveraged up further at [maybe?] smaller intervals in years to come…)

        All your concerns I think are valid categorically, not just wrt whether the effort is sufficiently manned and resourced. (And I share them: there is after all, a threshold level of corruption where government goes from merely very imperfectly and incompletely serving the needs of the governed to something whose purposes are wholly distinct from and unrelated to the needs of the governed, or “governed,” as the case might more likely be.)Report

  7. Avatar Hudson says:

    The way to win a war is to deprive the enemy of something it needs to continue fighting, typically: soldiers, food, supplies, weapons and ammo, money. In Korea, for example, the USAF and Allied planes, deprived the ChiCom forces of food and supplies by shooting up their trains and trucks. ChiCom could not prevent this. This destruction eventually forced the Chinese to the conference table. It didn’t result in peace, but it did prevent the Russian-Chinese-N. Korean Axis from controlling all of Korea.

    Today, in Afghanistan, the Taliban have plenty of all of these things, and we are not stopping them. They are more adept at denying us supplies than the other way around. We kill a bunch of them, and more pop up. We destroy acres of poppy crops and more pop up. The Taliban enjoy multiple streams of income. Due to restrictive rules of engagement, our bombing is ineffective. We are knocking off leaders with our drone/Hellfire strikes, particularly among al-Qaeda, but that is not preventing the Taliban from taking and holding ground and villages, and striking in the heart of Kabul itself.

    President Obama will resist withdrawal for the duration of his presidency. But he will not win in Afghanistan. If the Pakistani attacks against their Taliban included other insurgent tribes operating in Afghanistan, then a combined US-Pak offensive could crush to Talibs along the border as discussed above. But the Paks aren’t willing to do that, and so we are stuck.

    The Afghans are willing to fight. But it cannot take them years to develop an army capable of defending their country. They don’t have that much time. Either they buck up, or else. We might put together a winning coalition of tribes, as we did with the Northern Alliance in 2001. But who would these tribes be, and would they be strong enough to defeat the Taliban.? Ultimately, there will be a military solution, without hand-wringing about corruption et al. The side that fights longest and hardest will win. Unfortunately, the evidence increasingly indicates that side will not be ours. Sorry.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:


      I disagree with a number of points there. You’re talking about a scorched earth policy, something like what the Sinhalese did against the Tamil Tigers. But that would require in essence genocide against the Pashtun people. All Pashtun are not Taliban to be sure, but to totally eradicate the Taliban would require a near total war destruction.

      I don’t think we are in the war phase of Afghanistan but rather the stabilization phase (the much harder phase of contemporary military affairs). So I don’t think more policies based on an assumption of war (especially total war) are going to help.

      In the Korean war example, the end result was a political stalemate, whatever one’s consideration of the military side of things. This is the point. Even if you keep winning battles and start to squeeze the insurgency, it only works if there is followup–economic and political. I just don’t see that happening.

      No one is going to be able to stop the drug trade or the weapons trade. You just create a higher payoff in the market which draws in more professionalized criminal elements, who evolve in real time. Like super-deadly strain of bacteria in a hospital. It just creates a petri dish.

      So by your standards, it’s not an even matter of fighting more ruthlessly.

      The COIN doctrine is built off the 20th century notion that you can somehow cut off economically an area from the world—which you could prior to globalization and when countries like Malaya in the 40s/50s were so agrarian.

      That doesn’t work anymore.

      Even if you do totally destroy The Taliban, then what victory has been achieved? Is destroying The Taliban (both on the Afghan and Pakistani side) the end of al-Qaeda? Or the end of radicalized terrorism? I doubt it.Report

  8. Avatar Hudson says:


    What is this “stabilization” phase? What is stable? The Taliban are fighting to win. Who will stop them? Hamas beat up Fatah and kicked them out of Gaza. Israel hit Hamas and allies hard enough to stop the rocket attacks on their soil. A military victory prevents al-Qaeda from moving back into Afghanistan in force, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda from sending troops into Pakistan to bring down the government there. That would certainly amount to “success” in Obama’s terms.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

      Well if victory is al-Qaeda not coming back to Afghanistan, then I guess we’ve already won. Or do we have to stay there forever so that they never come back?

      As to Pakistan, al-Qaeda is already there. The Pakistani Taliban are already there. Mullah Omar and leadership of the Afghan Taliban are already there. And there is nothing the US can do about those realities, except try to keep them contained. The Pakistani Army will move after the Pakistani Taliban but not the Afghan one. So according to that definition, we’ve already lost.

      This is why I find war the wrong frame to think about these things. Wars, in the conventional sense, are won or lost. The Nazis lost WWII. The Soviets lost the Cold War.

      These kinds of insurgencies are not like war in that sense. It’s not so black/white as to who is winning or losing. It’s not clear how winning battles translates into “winning” in any larger sense. The US has never lost a battle to the Taliban–and never will. And yet we are “losing.” So we need to fight harder? Fight harder than never losing a battle?

      The Taliban are a local social movement and they will never be fully eradicated.

      This is why I find this language of “in it to win” versus “not all in” or whatever very unhelpful. This isn’t WWII or the Cold War for the US. The Taliban (and even al-Qaeda) do not represent a threat to the US the way the Nazis or the Soviets did.

      That’s where stabilization/containment, living with imperfect situations along with anti-criminal, anti-terrorist moves (e.g. breaking up money transfers, using special operations where necessary, etc.) is a better way I think to envision this. It’s not as sexy, but it’s far more realistic.Report

      • Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

        This is not a 20th century war. It’s an asymmetric war but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a war.

        “The Taliban (and even al-Qaeda) do not represent a threat to the US the way the Nazis or the Soviets did.” Substitute the USSR for “the Taliban (and even al-Qaeda)” and the Japanese (or whatever) for “the Soviets” and you’ll have the conventional wisdom that reigned during the later Cold War (i.e., Nixonst détente). This is why I say your ideas lack all context.

        “The Taliban are a local social movement and they will never be fully eradicated.” Again, saying that “Communism is a social movement and will never be fully eradicated” was another justification for détente. Besides, why can’t a social movement be eradicated? Is there some iron law of history to that effect?Report

        • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

          Yes it’s asymmetric war but that’s still dodging the key piece. What do you do after you beat (or rather keep beating) the asymmetric opponent?

          You and I both know that the US is not (and should not) going to undertake a process like the Russians did in Chechnya or the Sinhalese did against the Tamil Tigers. Those are the only groups that have successfully undertaken a counterinsurgency that has basically beat (totally) an asymmetric opponent.

          Given the US won’t go there….so even if you install more troops, (re)conquer some territory, these dudes are in one form or another going to be around.

          Then what? What happens after winning?

          The reigning consensus behind McChyrstal’s assessment (including Kilcullen) is that you will follow up with a legitimate central state apparatus/authority.

          No one has yet sufficiently to my mind explained how this will actually happen in Afghanistan. [Again Iraq is a very poor political analogy and doesn’t help here.] Particularly given the existence of trans-national black markets all over the country.

          To answer your last point. If you want to end the social movement, it happens economically first and then later politically-socially. Over a long period of time. Detente actually helped in that process and was a recognition of the reality that had increasingly come to play–namely that the Soviet sphere could not break into the West and Europe was not going to have another continent-wide war. Detente laid the groundwork for the re-integration of the Soviet satellite states when communism had fallen. Communism collapsed under its own false premises. Now you could say that a Nixon assumed that Soviet communism would live forever. But so what? What was the alternative–a war with the Soviet Union?

          This is where the analogy breaks down in other words. The jihadi groups are not the Soviets. They don’t possess giant armies, nuclear weapons, an alternate economic system, mass nation-state apparati.

          The actual rule of groups like The Taliban and such would also collapse eventually. It already has–that is the point of The Failure of Political Islam. Political Islam (unlike communism or fascism) has not really ever had any heavy duty political success and has already failed after only a few decades in existence.

          That is why all the Islamists group having actual success at governing, like in Turkey, are going capitalist and looking ultimately to integrate with the West. On their terms no doubt. But still integrating.

          Now The Taliban are particularly difficult given that they have arose in a rural (not urban like Islamism) environment. They have tried to re-create/install an agrarian traditional society, at great social and economic cost. That explains the horror-side of their regime. This is technically not Islamism but rather neo-fundamentalism.

          And dealing with that is much harder, given that so much of Afghanistan is agrarian. I think basically The Taliban (or something that basically is the same but maybe with a different name) is going to rule the countryside. Already does.

          The cities need to be protected. This is why I think a longer-term lighter footprint would have made more sense.

          But since it appears we are headed for a ramp up, then the clock is ticking much faster. This way I can only see a temporary ramp up leading to a deal that basically gets the Taliban in much of the south/east and hopes in the meantime (2 years probably max) build up an Afghan army/police who can basically prevent them from taking over when we start leaving combat zones.Report

          • Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

            “What do you do after you beat (or rather keep beating) the asymmetric opponent?” I accept your point that we don’t know the answer to this. But that shouldn’t mean that we do nothing, or that we do something that we know beforehand is not enough. One aspect of just not knowing the future is that present actions will change it. So, our committing new troops and a new COIN strategy will change whatever future projections we can ever make right now.

            Right now, the problem is a resurgent Taliban/al Qaeda. McChrystal has produced a strategy to deal with that, upon the instructions of the President, one must add. Once that problem is solved, then we can worry about what happens later. This is the basic flaw with the “exit strategy” aspect of Obama’s deliberations. If we produce an “exit strategy” then the enemy can simply wait us out. If we don’t, and we simply commit ourselves to defeating the Taliban/al Qaeda, then they can’t.

            “The actual rule of groups like The Taliban and such would also collapse eventually.” So what? You could say that about any group, government, person, or thing in the world. That’s because entropy is a basic law of nature. Why cut your fingernails, after all? They’ll just grow back again.

            “It already has–that is the point of The Failure of Political Islam. Political Islam (unlike communism or fascism) has not really ever had any heavy duty political success and has already failed after only a few decades in existence.”

            You see it as a failure but I doubt that the jihadists see it that way. They’re a religious movement. They work on belief and faith. If they don’t have heavy-duty success today, that just means that they must redouble their efforts. They can’t quit before they’re defeated because that would defy their own religious beliefs. I’d like to see you defy your own religious beliefs in the face of whatever “reality” can offer before you ask other people to do it.

            “This is technically not Islamism but rather neo-fundamentalism.”

            Is this another gem from Oliver Roy? I doubt that you can explain the distinction to anyone’s satisfaction, or why it should matter in the first place.

            “If you want to end the social movement, it happens economically first and then later politically-socially. Over a long period of time.”

            Nazism was also a social movement. They provided services to the workers, etc etc. The trains ran on time. It ended when they were defeated militarily.

            “Detente laid the groundwork for the re-integration of the Soviet satellite states when communism had fallen.”

            This is a classic instance of the historical fallacy, or using hindsight to analyze history. That was not what either the proponents of détente or its opposition thought about it, needless to say. If it happened according to your reading, then this is just more support for my position—we can’t project into the future. Your reading is an instance of “unintended consequences,” not of the policy of détente itself.

            What will the unintended consequences of a commitment to COIN in Afghanistan, and forty thousand new troops? If you can say with certainty, then you’re wasting your time writing on a blog. You should be out there teaching everyone else to see the future and making millions at it as well.Report

  9. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    Chris Dierkes says, “I have no idea what endgame in Afghanistan looks like.”

    That depends on what Obama decides to do, doesn’t it?

    If he decides to follow the advice that his own general gave him as a follow up to his own announced strategy, i.e., a COIN strategy, forty thousand more troops, then, for one, Pakistan will know we’re serious/committed, etc. They may not act against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but they will continue to fight them in Pakistan if they believe the US is in it to win. Once it looks like the Taliban is losing in Afghanistan, they are likely to reduce their support.

    For another, GB will continue their commitment under this scenario.

    The “endgame” will then depend on whether we can stick it out or not. Dierkes’s pessimism, “The fact is that political consolidation has failed,” is not supported by any facts at all. It sounds like the chorus of “the surge will fail/the surge has failed” that we endured in 2007-08, along with calling the Maliki government “failed,” “corrupt,” and so forth. The idea of acting on the idea, “But whatever option is chosen, nothing can be done by the West about Afghanistan’s corruption” is just giving in/surrendering.

    If this happens, then

    Kilcullen thinks the Taliban returns to power absent reforms and a continual US presence. Maybe, but I’m not so sure.

    Of course, it’s not only Kilcullen who thinks this. All the other military experts in our government and think tanks are saying the same thing. Plus, allied military experts agree as well. Dierkes supports his opinion with vague and dreamy speculation,

    If the US keeps air power in play, how does this happen?

    How does Dierkes think we will “keep air power in play” so as to keep the Taliban from seizing power? Carpet bombing? More drone attacks? Whatever it is won’t make any difference to the outcome. One reason is that if we lack the willpower to commit to winning, we won’t get the willpower to use air power, with all the civilian casualties (real and invented) that this entails. Again, Dierkes is contradicted by widespread agreement among people who really know what they’re talking about—as opposed to armchair generals like Dierkes—so that he lacks all credibility.
    Dierkes says,

    I think a more likely outcome [i.e., of following McChrystal’s strategy] is that the country continues to fragment into various tribal zones with a few city-state like urban centers (Mazir-e-Sharif, Kabul, Kandahar?).

    This is simply projecting present tendencies into the future. It should go without saying that we have the power to change that future projection. It should go without saying that any scenario that simply projects present tendencies into the future is bound to be wrong. That’s because… we just don’t know what will happen in the future. It’s only common sense, but it seems to elude Dierkes. The most we can do is to position ourselves to be in a strong position, no matter what the future holds. This is exactly what McChystal’s strategy does.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      “Of course, it’s not only Kilcullen who thinks this. All the other military experts in our government and think tanks are saying the same thing. Plus, allied military experts agree as well. “

      Ummm No, everybody is not saying that. it is uncertain what would happen if we pulled out and who would end up on top or if they would fall under the overly wide umbrella of groups we call the Taliban. At least yo didn’t use the silly trope of making success all about willpower……………………..oh I didn’t read that far ahead..nevermind, just get out your USA #1 foam finger and start cheering harderReport

      • Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

        Ummm Yes they are. One thing they’re certain about is that the “overly wide umbrella of groups we call the Taliban,” plus al Qaeda, would return to power.

        Oh, nevermind. Just get your finger out of… you know where. Self-prostate massages are fine for when you’re in your own bed, but not here.Report

        • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

          Read Rory Stewart. He makes (based on his experience of actually living and working there) a persuasive case questioning the automatic assumption of Taliban return to power.Report

  10. Avatar Chris Dierkes says:


    I think you misunderstand “endgame”. Endgame means jobs and political deals. Endgame does not mean killing bad guys. It may be necessary in the short run to up the military side in order to try to force some deal making. I don’t know if that will work honestly in this case, but it might be worth the shot. But the endgame is never military. Never. Ever.

    Why is everything about Iraq? This is Afghanistan. It is a country lacking in a history of a strong state function, as well as having groups that have fighting (and learning how to fight) for basically 30 years straight. This is essentially the poorest country on the planet with arguably the most battle-hardened insurgency on Earth.

    It is not, like Iraq, a heavily urbanized country. It is not, like Iraq, a country with a huge ethnic majority that, given the opportunity (i.e. US invasion plus surge), would consolidate power over the minority. Iraq has still has many issues to work, but it at least had a political trajectory. Afghanistan has been so wrecked and is so underdeveloped, this analogy does not apply (imo).

    The Taliban are on their home turf and will simply fade back into the crowd and wait the occupation out if they need to. The Pakistani Army is not going to move against the Afghan Taliban or Haqqani whether or not “we look tough” or committed or have the will to win.

    Rory Stewart–who actually lived in the place–questions whether the Taliban would automatically come back to power. They don’t have tanks. They don’t have the assistance of Pakistan (presumably) this time in the way they did last time. I’ve never said the US should just totally abandon the place.

    And what does coming back to power mean anyway? Taking over Kabul? Returning to the era of the 90s when the “Economics Minster” was a dude who had money stuffed under his pillow?

    The leadership of the Taliban (people like Mullah Omar) fled after the US invasion, but what has become clearer is that various former elements of the Taliban basically stayed in power in large swaths of the east, south of the country, during the last 8 years. They are not going away. The US-formed Karzai government is not going to eject them from power. They are the power in those parts and the idea of this central state with power throughout the countryside is a total fiction. I don’t think 40,000 more US troops is going to change that. They are going to have to be dealt in. The problem is I don’t know how you separate out those guys from the Mullah Omar (the so-called unreconcilables).

    Like I said, politically, I don’t know where this is going. I have a guess, but it’s just that…a guess.

    You are dealing with a country that really has not had anything really approaching a state since the Soviet invasion (or perhaps the Najibullah regime). It is a massively diffuse, tribal country rife with international black markets.

    What do you about that reality when you’ve beaten the bad guys?

    Well our experts don’t have an answer to that, since they are military experts. They (to me) just start at this point given us platitudes like “ending corruption”, “putting pressure on the Karzai government”, “reconstruction”, etc.Report

  11. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Just a relevant-to-this discussion note on the strangeness of Andrew Sullivan, discussed here of late. H/T-ing this very post, he offers this assessment:

    I just don’t believe this is doable without a flawless decades-long occupation. And the odds of that are tiny and the cost beyond any rational measurement of costs and benefits. I believe Obama knows this because he is not crazy, but he also knows that withdrawal would be used by the GOP to flay him alive for a war they botched but they insist he must now somehow save.

    Now, completely irrespective of the merits of the assessment there, Sullivan has progressed to a point, after prolonged ambivalence as far as I can tell (he took August off), where he is perfectly comfortable concluding that his assessment of the underlying policy problem is so unassailable that the only possible explanation for anyone, including the president, not to share it — complete with the attached opinion about costs and benefits — would be that that person is crazy. Is that how we feel about our assessment of prospects in Afghanistan now: that they are so clearly one way or the other that simple sanity itself rules out any conclusion but our own?

    He then casually asserts that because it cannot be that the president is insane, the explanation for the policy direction we see must be (though I believe he doesn’t realize the gravity of or the reality that this is what he alleges) the most craven and immoral possible motivations to make a decision that sends greater numbers of Americans into grave harm’s way, namely pure, crass political fear of the domestic opposition party’s (which presently is a feeble one at that) attacks as a result of doing otherwise, and their consequences for his political standing.

    And who knows, maybe it’s all true. But somehow, seemingly, it’s all okay with him:

    I’m glad I’m not the president, aren’t you?

    Well, yes Andrew, I am.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

      I don’t know about crazy.

      But it is worth asking (in this case particularly) about foreign policy relative to domestic needs & budgets. Not to mention military strain. Even if you could do this (and I’m really skeptical on that front), can we afford this?

      Especially given the poverty of Afghanistan and the US debt/deficit issues. And most especially given how late in the game this change would come….basically after having lost 8 years. 8 years!!!!

      My guess is Obama will accede to some short term ramp up while looking for the exits—in terms of up front troops on the ground. Various military trainers, special forces, equipment, aid, etc. will undoubtedly be around for some time to come.

      At the end of the day, the reason none of us wants to be president is that you have to make strategic priority decisions. When you are a David Kilcullen (and I’m not knocking the guy for this), you can always simply form your systematic theory, basically irrespective of actual politics. Or at least politics in a civilian ruled, democratically determined, media age.

      When you’re a general or a think tank person you can pretty well do the same. You simply assume the can-opener of never-ending streams of money to the defense budget and then work out how to maximize various strategies from within that world.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        This comment was not about the efficacy of CBA (it seems like the mist obviouly efficacious possible concept, in fact).

        This comment was about merely meant to address rhetoric (especially pointlessly throwaway absolutist rhetoric), epistemological and ideological humility, and extending the presumption of decency to the motivations of decision makers faced with excruciating choices, including being aware that failure to do so can unintentionally result from the implications of certain assumptions.

        By all means, the CBA has to happen.Report

        • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:




          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Appreciate that.

            Of course, cost-benefit-analysis becomes nothing more or less than an honest debate in the polity when some of the competing goods (such as an asserted decrease in likelihood of major terrorist attack, etc) cannot have a consensus monetary value, because they are inherently valued differently by citizens and cannot be traded to find an equilibrium value because they are a shared outcome, and when some of the proposed costs (human lives) are impossible to put a monetary value on ethically.

            So, the debate has to happen.Report

  12. Avatar Hudson says:


    You will recall that after the Soviets left Afghanistan, there was quite a bloody period of tribal-factional conflict that ended when the Taliban entered Kabul and took over, with some tanks, much the same as as the North Vietnamese entered Saigon, with some tanks. The Taliban then brutally consolidated power.

    So did the North Vietnamese, with one result being the thousands of “boat people” refugees, many of whom settled in the American South. The difference between the Taliban and the Vietnamese is that the latter was a nationalist movement, while the former is an international jihadist movement. The Taliban are not all Pushtun; there are Uzbek, Tajik, Arab fighters, etc. They are not the Afghan people. We have reconciled with Vietnam. But, it seems to me, that there is no reconciliation with a jihadi movement. We win or lose. History does resolve eventually back into its basics.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:


      There are certainly some non-Afghan fighters in the Afghan resistance. Obviously have been since the anti-Soviet jihad. But I don’t really think that makes the Taliban an international movement.

      At best I think they are a regional movement. They have international connections through drugs and such. Really there are various versions (right now Afghan and Pakistani) which claim being under the same umbrella but are often very differently focused.

      The Vietnam analogy is interesting in that it was argued that we had to stop the North Vietnamese lest it become falling dominoes through Southeast Asia. Turned out that wasn’t the case–though I guess you could say that was because we had a war with them.

      I can imagine Taliban-like elements moving northward into parts of Central Asia (e.g. Uzbekistan) if left unchecked. But each would be it’s own “nationalist” version. As we have seen with the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban.

      The reason these groups (Hamas, Hezbollah, Taliban) keep cropping up is because of a combination of 1. foreign occupation and/or 2. local autocratic rulers.

      The way out of that scenario over the long term is more genuine local leadership that is both inclusive of many elements of local (and Islamic in this case) reality but also less corrupt and generates economic progress. Turkey, the Kurdistan regional government, and Indonesia are good examples of this trend.

      I don’t see that anywhere happening in Afghanistan in any remote future. In other words, I see it violent for sometime to come (sadly). I also don’t see a US-brought in Afghan government becoming that kind of government.

      iow, I’m not really sure then I understand how one nationalist version of a international movement (communism) is able to be dealt with while a nationalist version of a regional movement is off limits. At the end of the day, the jihadis do not offer an alternate economic theory as did the communists. They don’t have a gigantic foothold in Europe and look to take over.

      You basically have terrorism which as Marc Sageman has pointed out is basically becoming a leaderless anarchist movement. And then you have groups like Taliban, Hamas, etc. who have localized grievances. They tend to have both some local support as well as be fairly brutal to their own people.

      And lastly you have actual al-Qaeda the group whose power continues to weaken.

      Conquering countries may deal with (or may inflame) a situation along the lines of #2, but it doesn’t solve #1 and may only increase the frequency of such attacks (see Ft. Hood attacks).

      Dealing with Af-Pak (a #2) has dealt a blow to al-Qaeda (#3) but continues to help the Taliban. It continues to give them training against the most advanced army on earth.

      Chinese finger trap.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        I don’t see any reason why the Taliban, however they are defined, wouldn’t heed the lesson not to let people use their turf to mess with us. They don’t want us there and we don’t want to be there. And they would know, because they are not stupid and we would clearly tell them, don’t bother us and we won’t bother you. So even if the Tal came back into power and they had an inclination to mess with us, which I think is in doubt, I think we can deal with that through clearly displaying our big stick.Report

        • Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

          “I don’t see any reason why the Taliban, however they are defined, wouldn’t heed the lesson not to let people use their turf to mess with us.”

          I do. It’s called “al Qaeda.” Al Qaeda and the Taliban are merged, not separate. The reason they’d keep messing with us is found in the doctrine of jihad. They can’t not mess with us if they want to keep their Islamic purity (according to them). At least until they’re defeated. Then there won’t be any Taliban or al Qaeda left to mess with anybody. I must note that I’m not talking about genocide. Don’t get on your high horse. There are more than one way to defeat an enemy besides “everybody dies.”

          “I think we can deal with that through clearly displaying our big stick.”

          Now you’re displaying your big stick? What’s going on here? Maybe you should go back to your self prostate massage…Report

  13. Avatar Hudson says:


    You are right that the Taliban per se are not an international group. But they have hosted, and very well might again, host al-Qaeda, which is an international terrorist movement. Don’t underestimate al-Qaeda. This year, according to the FBI, they infiltrated the Michigan Somali community, recruited 20 or so young Somali men and spirited them out of the country, apparently to fight us in Africa. Shrewdly, al-Qaeda did not recruit the men to fight here, and bring down heavy heat on Michigan. But they could just as well send another 20 into NYC during the upcoming trial of Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed & friends and unleash the Black Wind they have been promising us.

    I just don’t see a scenario where we sit down and reason together with these people. Historically, the only tactic that has worked with militant Islam is to defeat their armies so badly in battle that we get years of peace before they are able to raise another army for the next generation to fight.

    And now I leave my Manhattan office building two blocks from Ground Zero and head for home to the relative safety of Brooklyn.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes says:

      Those are some good points.

      AQ. Eventually they will either go north to Central Asia or to the Eastern Horn of Africa (as per the Michigan Somali connection). They will be a thing that just always has to dealt with.

      But I wouldn’t equate them with other groups with more localized foci. As modernity keeps impinging, the Islamic world is going through something like what the West did with its rise into modernity. There were counter-modern movements (fascism and communism) that caused unbelievable damage.

      Similarly there are counter-modern movements which will have to be contained as well as anarchist-like terrorism. On the positive side, there is already a strong international order within which this situation is arising. On the down side, with the fragmentation of the post-Cold War age, it’s also possible to connect to global economics and not really politically evolve.

      These two are coming to a head. But I think over the long term horizon, we will continue to see Islamic countries evolve along the lines of Turkey, Indonesia, Malayasia, etc. But Afghanistan is very far from that position now.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      I’m not up on the story about AQ getting 20 recruits out of Michigan, so maybe/probably there is more to the story. But on the face of it, AQ getting half a platoon of untrained soldiers to go to Africa doesn’t exactly strike me as a menace. If anything it points to a serious weakness of support in Africa, which is not exactly known for a shortage of young violent men.Report

  14. Avatar A.R.Yngve says:

    How to fix Afghanistan?
    Flood it.

    Afghanistan lacks access to the sea. Its location and topography makes it dry.
    This is the primal source of its poverty and backwardness.
    (See map: — and NOTE: “Arable Land 12%” )

    If you built a big canal through Afghanistan to the sea, it would open up the territory in more ways than one. But of course: which neighboring country wouldn’t object to having the canal go through its borders…Report

  15. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    President John McCain:

    “I am absolutely convinced and totally confident that with sufficient resources we can turn the situation around,” McCain told reporters at an international defense summit in easternmost Canada.

    “I even am bold enough to predict that in a year to 18 months you will see success if the effort is sufficiently resourced and there is a commitment to get the job done before setting a date to leave the region,” he said.

    That’s a real quote.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      And the thing is, if Obama goes down the road he seems to be preparing to take, it will become his job to say things not significantly less crazy than that — over and over and over again. McCain’s just saying the things he thinks the Commander in Chief ought to be.Report